Teacher-Driven Technology: A Case for Video Conferencing

CONWAY, Ark. (November 7, 2013) – Hendrix students arrived at class to discuss a reading assignment with the author. But the San Francisco-based author wasn’t on campus. She was sitting comfortably in her Bay Area home in front of her computer screen. Arlene Goldbard nonetheless carried on an hour-long conversation with Hendrix students via video conferencing.

The students are enrolled in Art and Spirit, co-taught by theatre professor Danny Grace and religious studies professor Dr. Jay McDaniel. The class is one of 14 new interdisciplinary offerings in the College’s new The Engaged Citizen (TEC) course for first-year students.  

Goldbard, the author of New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development and The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists, and the Future, listened as student groups posed questions such as “Should art be free?” 

“Arlene had been so generous toward our course content and the idea of our Art and Spirit Course. Our students had responded very favorably to The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists, and the Future,” said Grace. “Jay and I felt she would be a great role model for the students.” 

Making arrangements with the author was pretty easy, Grace said.  

“She is very busy and in high demand, but she made time for our students,” he said. “She told me she has done a lot of this sort of thing.  I don’t know if she has done classes like ours.”

Having the author talk and answer questions about her work was a unique experience for students, Grace said.

“Our students interacted with a nationally known and respected writer and activist.  She brought her material to life for our students in a way Jay and I would never be able to accomplish,” he said. “I know our students (as well as Jay and I) drew inspiration from having her ‘in’ class.  I doubt our students will forget her appearance.”

Students in Art and Spirit agreed.

“Getting to discuss with Arlene the topics of her book was truly an awesome experience. Never before has classroom material been brought to life so directly for me,” said Lexi Adams, a freshman from Lawrence, Kan. “It made everything that we’d previously discussed in class become a thousand times more relevant and real, as opposed to having a book author simply be some invisible presenter of ideas and thought.” 

“By speaking with the author we were able to get a better understanding of the author's true intentions with various literary devices rather than a third party's interpretation of such things,” said Alainna Collins, a freshman from Nixa, Mo. “I also found that Arlene has a lot of other insights that were not in the book that I found very interesting, both pertaining to the class and in my outside life.”

“It made the text more real,” said Tori Walters, a freshman from Dallas, Texas. “It made it relatable and made it understandable.”

“Discussing the book with the author as opposed to discussing the book with a professor gives us a completely new perspective and understanding of the material,” said Carly Howden, a freshman from Mandeville, La. “We asked Ms. Goldbard questions that, as a class, we thought up and received real answers as opposed to making assumptions.” 

“Well just the fact that it was her book, when she talks about it, it makes it ten times more believable,” said Benjamin Robles, a freshman from Little Rock, Ark. “And also the overall message seems clearer.”

Grace and McDaniel are no strangers to using video conferencing technology in the classroom.

Last spring, the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance, Grace’s department, produced Voice for the Theatre, the College’s first video teleconference class, in collaboration with faculty at Rollins College. The department is also making arrangements to have teleconferences for current students to interact with Hendrix alumni who are graduates of the theatre arts program. 

McDaniel has used video conferences to conduct course sessions with students and faculty at institutions in China.

“I sure feel like Skyping with authors is good for students,” said McDaniel. “They really liked it.”

Student feedback was definitely positive, McDaniel said, adding that the level of interaction between student and guest speaker wasn’t affected by the technology at all.

“I actually think video is better,” he said. “You don’t have to host them the whole time, and it isn’t as costly because they don’t have to spend a day or two travelling.”

Having a guest the caliber of Goldbard on campus would cost the College about $2,500 a day, Grace estimated.

“Arlene did the session at no cost to us,” Grace said. “I feel in the future we would at the very least need to offer her some compensation.  We would like to have the author of our other text book visit our class [but] we could not afford to have her on campus through TEC.”

Using video conferencing technology is a cost effective, timely, and user friendly classroom solution compared to the expense and planning required bringing someone to campus, according to Hendrix Fellow in Digital Humanities & Pedagogy Timothy A. Lepczyk, who assists Hendrix faculty with technology initiatives in the classroom.

In terms of current events and immediacy, faculty members can connect very fast with those who are experiencing an event or connect with an author or subject matter expert via Skype, Lepczyk said. 

Sometimes things can go wrong, Lepczyk said. You can't control the technology on the other end of the call. Sometimes students and faculty may be camera shy and may feel awkward establishing a rapport with people on a video call.

And sometimes the uncertainty of video technology can be an asset for students in class, Adams said.

“Because the connection was at times a bit sketchy, like it often is during video calls, it was important to pay close attention to the subject Arlene was discussing,” Adams said. 

Any drawbacks to using video conferencing in the classroom are likely a product of uncertainty more than difficulty in learning, Lepczyk said. 

“The media center does a fabulous job supporting faculty in this activity,” Lepczyk said. “There's not a lot for faculty to learn or be responsible for. The goal is to have the faculty member teach as they normally would and let the technology fade into background.

Hendrix education professor Dr. James Jennings uses video conferencing for his TEC class called Poverty and Institutions. The course, which he teaches with politics professor Dr. Carmen Hardin, focuses on how poor people interact with four institutions – education, welfare, housing, and criminal justice.

Jennings and Hardin have used video conferencing to connect students with a curriculum director in a high poverty school system and with a juvenile judge.

“It’s really helpful in terms of giving students the opportunity to interact with these subjects,” said Jennings. “It gives us so much accessibility to sources.”

Jennings isn’t concerned that the use of video conference technology is overshadowing traditional classroom instruction.

“Teaching still drives technology,” he said. “Technology supports what you’re trying to do with traditional teaching.”

  Founded in 1876, Hendrix College is a national leader in engaged liberal arts and sciences education. For the sixth consecutive year, Hendrix was named one of the country’s “Up and Coming” liberal arts colleges by U.S. News and World Report.  Hendrix is featured in the latest edition of Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think about Colleges, as well as the 2014 Princeton Review’s The Best 378 Colleges, Forbes magazine's list of America's Top Colleges, and the 2014 Fiske Guide to Colleges. Hendrix has been affiliated with the United Methodist Church since 1884. For more information, visit www.hendrix.edu.